OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — At every stop, in every road arena, Kobe Bryant is reflecting on 20 years of memories and many great games.
He’s enjoying every second of this farewell ride despite all the losing, which isn’t exactly how he intended to go into retirement.
The 37-year-old Bryant returned to Oracle Arena on Thursday night and the site of his first career 50-point game to face the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
“It’s really cool. This has been 20 years coming,” Bryant said. “It’s fun to go to these arenas for the last time and be able to soak it all in and really appreciate the arenas and appreciate the fans and the players from a different perspective versus having blinders on and really just focusing on one thing.”
During pregame introductions, the Warriors showed a tribute from Lakers Hall of Famer and Golden State executive Jerry West with a highlight video on the main scoreboard as fans in the sellout crowd — including retiring Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson, Oakland quarterback Derek Carr and Athletics manager Bob Melvin — chanted “Kobe! Kobe!” before a rousing ovation when his name was called. Bryant waved, tipped his head and clapped his hands in appreciation.
In honor of Bryant’s five NBA titles, the Warriors gifted him with a five-day Napa Valley vacation with five wineries and five restaurants included. He also received a five-liter bottle from Amuse Bouche winery featuring a special label with his jersey.
Bryant received many a hug at midcourt from the Warriors beforehand. He started despite a nagging sore right shoulder and a right Achilles strain, and made his first shot.
“He was fixated in not having a career. He was fixated on having an incredible career,” West said in a pregame news conference, recalling the first workout Bryant went through 20 years ago at age 17.
“For someone that age, it was remarkable the skill, the love that he had for the game and the desire to excel. The one thing that was very evident to me right away, this was a player at 17 years old I had never seen someone with the skill that he had.”
Interim Warriors coach Luke Walton won’t get ahead of himself and think about the chance to coach Bryant in his All-Star Game finale next month, though Walton knows that would be a blast — noting, “I’m not even really a real coach. I have zero wins.”
Bryant left a lasting impression on Walton with his grit to play no matter what body part was hurting or how tired he might be, and they won two NBA championships during 8 1/2 seasons together with the Lakers.
“He was incredible. I’ve never, still to this day, ever seen anyone play through the stuff that he’s played through. Early on in my career, I would think, ‘OK, well he’s not going to be out there tonight and we have to step up and then after a while you just learn that he’s playing no matter what unless someone takes him off the court,” Walton recalled. “There was a game he couldn’t even lift his right shoulder up above his head to shoot the ball so he started shooting it left-handed and finally that’s when Phil (Jackson) pulled him out.
“That kind of hurt a little bit that he thought him shooting left-handed 3-pointers was more effective than passing me the ball. That’s what made him such a great player.”
Bryant certainly hoped for a better showing in Oakland this time as he departs the Bay Area. In a 111-77 loss here Nov. 24, Bryant shot 1 of 14 for just four points to match the worst-shooting performance of his career in a game when he had at least one basket. Golden State set a record for the best start in NBA history that night, too, improving to 16-0 on the way to a 24-0 mark.
Yet this is also the place where Bryant produced his first career 50-point game, when he scored 51 on Dec. 6, 2000, at Oracle Arena — his highest output ever here. Golden State star Antawn Jamison also scored 51 that night in a 125-122 overtime win against the Lakers.
Whatever Bryant does next, West will remember what he brought to the game.
“He has left a legacy throughout the world. Millions of people love this guy, and millions of people will miss what he was able to accomplish in his career,” West said. “He’s left a lot of big footprints there. I don’t see anyone there who’s going to be able to step in those footprints.”
That game is one that still sticks out in his mind, and Bryant acknowledged it has been fun to see Golden State grow into a contender again after all the down years.
Oh, and he has no desire to face Stephen Curry and these Warriors in the playoffs. No thanks.
“No, I’m good. They play too well here. I’d rather not,” Bryant said with a grin. “If I had to and the challenge presented itself, of course I’d rise to the challenge. If I had a choice, absolutely not. I don’t want to deal with this crowd.”